This is my second feature article on the all-media movement known as The Weird. For over a century, artists of all stripes have left the beaten paths of genre convention and audience expectation to create fiction of a strange and wonderful kind. Meanwhile, over the last couple of years, my love for this fiction has grown out of all proportion. Rather than let it get too unmanageable, I have decided to put some of the love into a series of irregular features. Hopefully, thus trapped, it will prove less bothersome.
There is a strong possibility, that my decision to write these weird features stems solely from my desire to talk about Bubba Ho-Tep. Well, even if that’s the case, fuck it. Bubba Ho-Tep is a movie that needs to be talked about. This is a movie of exciting action, fairly creepy horror, and meditative, intelligent social commentary, all wrapped up in the most ridiculous packaging imaginable. It is a combination that should not work, that should be torn apart by competing frivolous and serious tones. And yet, this is not the case, and the brilliance of Bubba Ho-Tep lies in its weird synthesis of humour and gravitas.
Humour is not common in weird fiction, and frankly the scene can get terribly serious at times. This is not particularly surprising: the roots of weird fiction lie in grim earth. In part this is down to the legacy of the weird patriarchs, writers like Lovecraft, Poe and Blackwood. Their influence is visible in the tendency of weird fictioneers to couch their grotesque and uncanny content in the language of horror. But this is not the only cause. Gravity’s dominance also has a sense of self-consciousness about it, the feeling of artists worried that “If we don’t take it seriously, they’ll laugh at it”. The weird always runs the risk of breaching peoples’ tolerances which often prompts dismissal. Everyone prefers being dismissed on the grounds of being mysterious and inscrutable, than being labelled as silly. But in following tradition and caution, the weird fails to retain a certain sense of perspective.
To put it in an antagonistic fashion, the weird bears the imprint of academics insisting big tentacley monsters can only be treated seriously. Mostly seriously: yes. Such monsters were created to terrify after all. But it’s good to occasionally admit what is weird is also faintly ludicrous. This is what Bubba Ho-Tep does. This is a film in which an old man, who believes he is Elvis Presley, and another old and decidedly black man, who believes he is JFK, fight a mummy in a cowboy outfit intent on devouring the souls of pensioners. Now that is weird and also ridiculous. Bubba Ho-Tep is not shy about that.
In fact, Bubba Ho-Tep encourages its audience to laugh. Elvis and JFK are constantly quoting and paraphrasing their famous selves, and the film is full of silly one-liners and pictographic insults. The humour here is of the cheesy and knowing variety, making Bubba Ho-Tep the kind of movie that smiles along with mockery. Hell, the movie willingly pokes fun at itself: Elvis consistently refers to himself and his friend as ‘nuts’, and we are introduced to the character by his nurse teasing him about his identity.
But this acknowledgement of ridiculousness never undercuts the movie’s intelligence. Bubba Ho-Tep dishes out some fairly brutal criticism of modern society. In the black comic asides of two hearse drivers, Bubba Ho-Tep presents a society too preoccupied with day-to-day labour to care about more metaphysical issues. Philosophy here is the preserve of the oaf and the nut. The opening of the film too has something to say, following the death of Elvis’ roommate, a terminally ill veteran. When the veteran’s daughter comes to claim his things, she treats her father’s purple heart and old photos like rubbish, absent-mindedly dropping them in the bin. All she has to say about the man was that he was ‘alright’. When Elvis asks her why she never visited her father, all she can say is that she was ‘busy’. And yet she says it like it is the ultimate reason, that seeing her dying father could not be a priority in a world with so much to do. Through these scenes, Bubba Ho-Tep casts an unflattering light on a world of individuals living purely in the now, with no thought for past or future, or indeed other beings beyond their everyday sphere.
But the movie does find good men in this Gomorrah. The decision to fight the mummy leads to the ultimate redemption of Elvis and JFK. These two characters lived wholly in the moment during their youth. Now the moment has passed, and they are left with nothing but regrets. Their battle against the mummy is a sign of their personal growth, their acknowledgement of the worth in fighting for the sake of others. And the subtext doesn’t stop there.
Bubba Ho-Tep is also an effective critique of society’s treatment of the elderly, most commonly through Elvis’ bitter internal monologues. The old man is surrounded by younger people who treat him like a child. They scold him, tell him how long he can play outside, put him down for naps, and see him as sexually non-existent. It is a situation he abhors. Admittedly, and somewhat satirically, Elvis and JFK occasionally live up to the condescension: Elvis uses the toilet as a matter of pride, and the pair’s highest pleasure is found in secretly-stashed candy. But in the end, you are left in no doubt that there are serious problems with the way we instinctively treat senior invalids. Through this, Bubba Ho-Tep becomes a film about humanising the elderly. Just because they may be physically infirm, does not mean mind and will are weak. As the film’s ending shows, a hero in a wheelchair is just as badass as one walking.
And that in the end is what Elvis and JFK are: heroes. This is what makes the ridiculousness and the seriousness co-operate rather than conflict. Subtext aside, the story of Bubba Ho-Tep is the story of two men who, despite their physical frailty, take on a genuinely dangerous opponent. This is a film with real soul, something that can be felt in every strum of guitar in Brian Tyler’s score. It is this soul that gives the intellectual subtext emotional weight. It is this soul that makes the self-aware ridiculousness celebratory rather than snarky. This soul makes a darkly intelligent film, about Elvis and black JFK fighting a mummy, work. Bubba Ho-Tep is a movie that creates a whole out of all kinds of parts. It is a film chimaera. A Frankenstein’s story. And pure, weird, genius.